10/12/10 - the new south

In today's excerpt - our American narrative says that in 1865 the slaves of the south were free. But in 1877, and in the decades that followed, the lot of blacks had scarcely improved. Enforced servitude, intimidation and murder were routinely carried out and condoned, and federal troops were scantily available to travel south and enforce the new laws of the land. A former slave named Henry Adams kept a list:

"Henry Adams kept a list. It was a long list, and one that kept growing. Every time whites committed a violent act against blacks in his northern Louisiana parish of Clairborne, Adams would add a new entry. There was number 323, Manuel Gregory, who was hanged for 'talking to a white girl,' and number 333, Abe Young, who boasted that he was going to vote Republican, for which crime he was 'shot by white men.' Number 453, Jack Shanbress, was whipped and then shot 'because he was president of a Republican club.' Ben Gardner, number 454, was 'badly beaten by white men' for refusing to work another year on 'Mr. Gamble's plantation.' Eliza Smith, number 486, was 'badly whipped by Frank Hall' for 'not being able to work while sick,' while a black man known only as Jack, number 599, was 'hung dead, by white men,' for having 'sauced a white man'—talking back after having received instructions. By the time Henry Adams presented his list to a committee of the United States Senate in 1878, there were 683 violent incidents.

"When the committee asked Adams what they could do to help, he responded that only federal troops proved effective in curbing violence. The white terrorists, called 'bulldozers' in Louisiana, had no reason to fear local law enforcement, which they dominated. When federal troops came into his parish during the 1876 election, the bulldozers 'stopped killing our people as much as they had been; the White Leagues stopped raging about with their guns so much.' But only the governor could request federal assistance, and that office had fallen into the hands of the terrorists themselves.

"Henry Adams had been a slave for twenty-two years and knew well the anger of Louisiana's whites. But when he joined the United States Army, he met whites worthy of his respect, and in 1869 at Fort Jackson he began attending a school for black soldiers run by a white woman named Mrs. Bentine. Adams learned to read and write, and felt a new world opening before him, one that promised greater equality and opportunity. The following year he voted for the first time and perceived the potential of democracy, becoming a leader in his community and a successful businessman. As an organizer for the Republican Party, he found a number of whites with whom he could work and whom he esteemed for their honesty and courage, but the majority of whites belonged to the Democratic Party and sought to silence those with whom they disagreed.

Reconstruction gave the former slaves hope for the future, but it aroused the rage of the defeated Confederates who despised the new order. ... Those who did not share a conviction in the inherent right of white men to rule totally were to be silenced and the South would speak with a single voice. These whites, so often the same people who had supported slavery and secession in the past, did not hesitate to use violence to attain their ends—thus Adams's list.

"Joe Johnson was another name on that list, but also Adams's friend. He had been elected constable in East Feliciana Parish on the Republican ticket in November 1876. When Adams went to visit his friend in the first days of 1877, he found a grieving widow standing by the smoldering ruin of Johnson's house. She told him how more than fifty white men had come to their house and killed her husband 'because he refused to resign his office as constable.' They set fire to the house with Johnson inside, leaving him for dead. But Johnson crawled from the house into a pool of water, even though 'all the skin was burnt off of him.' The terrorists saw Johnson and shot him several times, though he lingered on for several days before dying. Adams had to admit to Johnson's widow that there was little chance for justice, 'as I knew that white men had been killing our race so long, and they had not been stopped yet.' Standing with her children, Mrs. Johnson wept, 'O, Lord God of Hosts, help us to get out of this country and get somewhere where we can live.' "


Michael A. Bellesiles


1877: America's Year of Living Violently


The New Press


Copyright 2010 by Michael A. Bellesiles


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